Treasures abound in the capital of the New England High Country.
As you creep up the New England Highway into Armidale, it becomes clear this region is aptly named. European trees line the wide country roads and fill the abundant parklands of New England’s capital, alight in glorious tones of red, orange and yellow – if you are lucky enough to be visiting in autumn. Stately turn-of-the-century homes stand tall and proud among cosy cottages as you make your way to the town centre, where historic buildings have been seamlessly integrated into modern life. It’s clear this is a town that values its rich history, somehow managing to be both a step back in time and a hub of modernity. For a traveller, that’s great news.
The highest city in Australia at almost 1000m elevation, Armidale was built on the sheep’s back, its early landholders finding great wealth in the area’s sprawling, fertile high plains. Evidence of wealthy foundations is dotted throughout town and in the paddocks beyond, from palatial private homes with grand woolsheds to stately old school buildings where students play rugby union on perfectly manicured lawns. Not one but two imposing cathedrals reach for the heavens in the centre of town, their impressive displays of architecture best admired from the quaint Central Park, where established European trees deceive the eye into thinking it were on another continent altogether. And those rich pastures surrounding the city still generate quality produce, putting Armidale on the map for the production of prime beef, lamb and wool.
It’s little wonder, then, that Armidale has a burgeoning food scene, with a veritable smorgasbord of eateries offering everything from fine dining to quality pub fare. Restaurateurs speak in accents as remote as Greek and Russian, while the University of New England injects both a youthful and multicultural vibrancy to this regional centre. Armidale is downright cosmopolitan, offering a lively arts scene and an extensive range of accommodation to suit all tastes, from the humble country motor inn to authentic farmstays with open fireplaces and, at the upper echelon, sprawling, luxurious rooms in stately country homesteads nestled among the vineyards.
But there can be no doubt that the jewels in Armidale’s crown are the World Heritage-listed national parks that sit right on its doorstep. Head east on the Waterfall Way and you’ll discover treasures untold within the mountainous folds of the New England and Oxley Wild Rivers National Parks, among others. Where else can you spend a day weaving between giant granite boulders, meandering through lush, Gondwana-era subtropical rainforest, gasping at staggering and seemingly unending gorges from breathtakingly high vantage points and picnicking on the grassy banks of pristine flowing creeks, before heading back to town to debrief over a glass of local wine and a delicious meal in a beautiful old pub? It could only be Armidale.
Of course, you’re going to want to spend more than a day losing yourself in this pristine wilderness area, so why not throw the tent in the car or hook up the camper trailer – there are heaps of idyllic campsites dotted throughout the region’s national parks. If you’ve got a 4WD you’ll find no shortage of tracks to explore, and don’t forget the hiking boots or the mountain bike – there are trails of various lengths and difficulties all sharing one common element: stunning scenery. Or perhaps you’d prefer a bird’s eye view? No problem. Book yourself in for a scenic helicopter flight and bask in nature’s artistry from the air. This really is the best way to take in the scope and majesty of the New England gorges, the highest point of the Great Dividing Range before you reach the Snowy Mountains in the state’s south. Be blown away as your eye follows the dramatic unfolding of the Divide as it crumbles to the coastal flats far below.
Just two and a half hours inland from Coffs Harbour, or five hours’ drive from both Brisbane and Sydney, Armidale is a breath of fresh air for those looking for an authentic and romantic high country escape.